Friday, July 15, 2005

Blinded me with Science | by Pat

While doing a little preliminary fantasy football research (that other glorious fall time-waster), an article about the Patriots offense caught my eye. It's by K.C. Joyner, who goes by the nom de plume "The Football Scientist", and he runs a website by the same name. If you're a faithful Dr. Z reader (and you should be) you might remember Joyner from a recent column on

But back to the article on the Patriots offense. We're all aware of the dazzling X's and O's work by Charlie in New England, and we're all giddy about him duplicating that blueprint in South Bend. But Joyner points out that much of the credit for the Patriots' success must go to the exceptional talent of Tom Brady and the ability of the Patriots braintrust to maximize it.

One of the reasons the Patriots offense is so damn good is that they have a clear idea of what it is they are trying to do not only with each player, but also with each unit. As I've pointed out many times in this book, there are many teams who have schemes that they try to force onto players who simply don't have the proper skill set to run it. The Patriots don't have to do this on offense in large part because of Tom Brady

Everyone likes to talk about Brady's leadership, or his grace under pressure, or his ''big-game ability''. That's all fine and dandy, but you know that I don't deal in that kind of mumbo-jumbo when it comes to player analysis. There are four specific skills that Tom Brady has that separate him from the rest of the league. He has no fear in the pocket, he finds the open receiver, he's accurate with the pass, and he doesn't make bad decisions. I can't tell you how few NFL quarterbacks have all 4 of these skills, and no NFL QB has all 4 in the abundance Tom Brady does. The benefits these traits offer are sometimes so subtle that they require additional emphasis.

I've broken down nearly every New England game from the past two seasons and I have yet to find a time when Brady felt the pass rush. What I mean by this is that Brady always maintains his downfield vision, even when the pocket is collapsing. He also has the same ability Joe Montana had in making the first pass rusher miss. He has an instinctive feel for where the pocket is. He can also adjust to the pocket's movement without having to take his eyes off of looking downfield, and he seems to almost always move with the pocket at just the right time. This is something so many QBs are taught but so few can do well, and Brady is simply the best at it.

Brady also finds the open receiver. That sounds simple enough, but Brady's pocket presence actually makes this trait even more valuable. Because Brady is so good at buying time in the pocket, and because he has such an intense focus on how the play is developing, he is able to look at 3rd and 4th receivers more often than any other QB.

One of the ingenious things the Patriots coaches do to take advantage of this is to allow all of their receivers to run routes at all depths. Take a look at the Pats receivers and look at their pass depth distribution. Every single one of their receivers was used frequently on every depth level. It isn't that their receivers are so great at running routes, although they aren't bad. It's simply that the Patriots realize Brady will find the 3rd and 4th receivers and they don't want to limit what those receivers can do. It's not only that Brady does a great job of seeing the field. It's also that the Pats coaches have found a way to maximize the value of that skill set.

Even though his bad decision percentages were high, Brady doesn't typically make bad decisions. He made 12 bad decisions in 19 games, but 3 of them came in the Monday night game at Miami. Those 3 plays also accounted for 11 out of the 24 weighted bad decision points Brady had all year, so if you subtract that one bad game, you have 9 bad decisions and 12 bad decision points in 18 games. Now that's damn good.

New England also has a very clear idea of what role they want their passing game to serve in their overall offensive philosophy. When the Patriots pass, they want to do one of two things. They either want to use the passing game to augment their running game, or they want to get vertical. The best way to illustrate this is by their percentage of short, medium, and deep passes.

The Patriots had the lowest percentage of short passes in the entire league, and there's a clear reason for this. Their short passing game is simply a tool to accomplish three things: 1) To keep defenses from putting 8 defenders in the box; 2) to make sure the defense backs don't stay too far off the line to cheat for the deeper passes; and 3) as a checkoff in the event the deep pass isn't open. The Pats also run a very safe short passing game. Brady only had one bad decision on a short pass all year, and that was in the Miami Monday night game.

The Patriots also ranked 2nd in medium pass percentage and 4th in deep pass percentage. I haven't looked at the combined percentages for these metrics for the entire league, but I'd have to think that this probably makes them either #1 or a close #2.

The disparity of short and vertical passes clearly illustrates the Patriots passing game philosophy. When the Pats pass short, they are going to be certain they don't make mistakes on it. They are more willing to make mistakes on vertical passes. What I mean by this is that the Patriots seem to have a risk/reward ratio in mind when they pass the ball. They won't take any chances on short passes because the risk far outweighs the reward. They are much more willing to take chances on deeper passes because the reward is higher. Again, they have a very clear idea of what their passing philosophy is. You'd be amazed how many teams don't have this philosophical clarity.

The clarity of pass depth use provides the answer as to how to stop them, and it was Brady himself who pointed this out to John Madden and Al Michaels before the Miami Monday night game. Brady said he always struggles against Miami because Miami does two things. They play tight man coverage with their CBs and they keep their safeties deep. Or to put it another way, they do some of the same things to New England's offense that New England's defense does to other teams. Their deep safeties take away the vertical passes and their tight man coverage takes away the shorter passes. The Pats ended up having to target the Miami LBs, as the Dolphins coverage scheme put the LBs in man coverage situations, but it still slowed New England's offense down tremendously.

The Patriots coaches get a lot of credit for their ingenious playcalling and scheme management, but on offense Tom Brady should get just as much credit. The synergy of Brady's skills and the Patriots skill maximization philosophy has simply made each of them better than they should be. It truly is the subtlety of genius.
Good stuff, huh? The first thing that strikes me is that while Weis will give ND's offense a shot in the arm, we're not just going to be able to stick any old quarterback in there and succeed. Luckily for us, Brady Quinn isn't just any old quarterback. He has tremendous physical skills, and the mental acuity to be a good decision-maker. The big question is how quickly he's able to absorb what Weis is teaching him from week-to-week, and then replicate it on the field during the heat of battle. I don't expect him to be as razor-sharp and unflappable as Tom Brady right off the bat, but he's got the basic building blocks, and he should steadily improve as the season progresses.

The "short passing game as high-percentage safety valve" is also interesting. How many times in the past few years did you, your dog, and everyone else in the world know Notre Dame was about to run the ball? The other team would stick eight guys in the box, we'd snap the ball, and get nailed for, at best, a minimal gain. Hopefully a productive and effective short passing game will keep those linebackers on their toes, as opposed to drawing straws to see who gets the tackle this time.

One final note. The mention of the Dolphins defense raises a question about Bill Lewis, and if he will try to employ similar strategies for the Irish secondary. The article mentions the trouble Brady had with tight man coverage with the corners close to the line of scrimmage and the safeties kept back to help out on deep routes. The problem for us is, we don't have the caliber player that is needed to run that kind of defense yet. We've got some fast guys back there, but no proven shutdown corners, and a serious lack of game experience. Trying to run that kind of defense can get a team killed if your cornerbacks aren't up to the task. Now, if one or more of the redshirt freshman can, to use a hackneyed sports cliche, "step up" this fall, we might actually have a pretty decent pass defense. Perhaps not as effective as the Dolphins (unless we have a few Thorpe Award candidates waiting in the wings) but far better than we have seen the past two years.